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Small government? You gotta be kidding!

Since the time our Constitution was written, the political sphere has changed enormously.

Australian federal politicians had no staff until 1944. Since then, we have seen both a huge increase in staffers and a shift in the type of people employed.

An article by Adam Creighton in June 2014 made some revealing observations. Whilst the figures are two years old, they give a sense of scale and are no doubt even higher now.

The government of South Australia (population 1.7 million) has more personal staff than that of Britain, which oversees Europe’s second largest economy (population of 62 million). Australian federal and state governments have in total more than 10 times more.

Since 1984 the number of federal personal staff has more than doubled to 590, including about 420 for ministers and 88 for the opposition (which is traditionally given 21 per cent of whatever the government has). Electorate staff (who earn between $62,000 and $85,000 before superannuation and allowances) number about 925.

Keep in mind, the federal government can already seek advice from more than 2800 “senior executive” public servants (remuneration $230,000 to $380,000 a year). State governments have commensurate staff.

The Australian prime minister enjoys about 55 personal staff, above the almost 800 in the Department of Prime Minister itself. Ministers have between 10 and 20 each and the cabinet has access to a 167,000-strong core federal public service.

Personal staffing jobs are well paid, with advisers and senior advisers (about 60 per cent of the total, most in their late 20s and 30s) taking home $160,000 to $300,000 a year once generous travel and cashed-out car allowances are factored in. No formal qualifications are required.

The cost of politicians’ staff is $235 million a year at the federal level alone.

“It surprises British MPs when they find out they are earning considerably less than even relatively junior Australian political staffers,” says John McTernan, a former senior staff member to Gillard and former British prime minister Tony Blair. The more junior assistant advisers — some in their early 20s studying part time, earn more than $115,000 a year all included.

Until Howard, these staff jobs were usually filled by public servants but, increasingly over the last decade, there has been a move away from experienced policy experts from the public sector to people appointed overwhelmingly from political parties.

“These appointments don’t necessarily have the breadth of experience required to be effective advisers on policy and the business of government as was the case previously,” said Terry Moran, secretary of Prime Minister’s Department between 2008 and 2011.

John Wanna, a professor of public administration at Australian National University, says: “Many staffers are next-generation pollies on the make and simply ‘barnacling’ themselves on to a powerful senior politician to gain points and endorsements for their subsequent preselection.”

Tim Wilson ring a bell?

The winners of elections can and do shower their political foot soldiers with largesse in the form of highly paid jobs. Ted Mack, in his 2013 Henry Parkes Oration, said: “At federal level there are now some 17 hundred personal staff to ministers and members. The states probably account for over two thousand more. Add to this the direct political infiltration of federal-state public services and quangos with hundreds more jobs for the boys and girls, there is now a well-established political class.”

Politicians exist in echo chambers surrounded by sycophants whose very careers depend on unquestioning repetition of meaningless mantras and support for policy regardless of evidence. Negotiation is seen as capitulation. Advice is unnecessary and unwanted. Positions are set dependent on that taken by the Opposition rather than on what is the best course of action – negative gearing and capital gains tax concessions are a prime example. It’s all about the marketing.

And we have an army of PR people feeding lines to tame/lazy commentators ready to tell you that anything Gillian Triggs or Ged Kearny or CSIRO scientists or International Courts have to say is a pack of political lies.

Small government? You gotta be kidding!


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  1. Möbius Ecko

    There in a nutshell is what I hate most about modern Australian politics. I don’t know how this can be reigned in, but reigned in it must be.

    And this doesn’t touch on the consultants. Public servants are sacked in the name of efficiency and savings only to be replaced by consultants at a greater cost.

  2. Matters Not

    These appointments don’t necessarily have the breadth of experience required to be effective advisers on policy and the business of government as was the case previously,” said Terry Moran, secretary of Prime Minister’s Department between 2008 and 2011.

    Terry Moran had wide experience across State and Federal public services and he’s been a long time critic of the role played by ministerial advisors. (Perhaps he forgets that he was in that position in his younger days?)

    But KL the numbers you cite aren’t the complete picture. There’s any number of what was once called Ministerial Liaison Officers (MLOs) who are paid as public servants but who actually reside in ministerial offices doing semi political work. So one needs to be careful with the figures because they would probably be on the low side.

    Nevertheless, having people act as MLOs has an upside because the public servants involved gain some real insight into the pressures faced by Ministers. They learn the importance of ‘timely’ advice, the need to offer ‘useful’ recommendations as well as keeping the young ‘suits’ from making complete fools of themselves.

    But Moran has a point, it would be better if there were more trust between Ministers and Departments but I fear the opposite direction is the likely one.

  3. Kaye Lee


    I tried verifying current numbers and they vary wildly, no doubt depending on who you include, but they are huge. Your point about blooding public servants was mentioned in Creighton’s article.

    “It was seen as an essential ­developmental pathway for prospective departmental secretaries — think Graham Evans, Sandy Hollway, Ken Henry, Stephen Sedgwick, among others,” says Anne-Maree Tiernan, an academic at Griffith University and author of a new book on prime ministerial chiefs of staff.”

    He also mentioned Rudd and Gillard’s preference for young people with little experience.

    “The offices of prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard broke decidedly with tradition, famously employing much younger chiefs of staff and senior advisers with limited experience of the public or private sectors. While the policy outcomes were often less than successful, the Abbott government has broadly continued the trend.”

  4. diannaart

    At the level of service delivery (AKA the coalface), lower level public servants have had support staff, budgets and every other type of cut, slash and burn, in order to be ‘lean and mean’. It is not so much the public service, per se, that is flabby, so much as it is a privileged top end.

    To add insult to injury, the knowledge and experience of long time public servants, who have worked their way through the ranks, was lost to restructuring (a few returned on a contract basis) but even when a staffer somehow managed to hold their position, they are ignored and overruled by the political appointees, Kaye Lee has expanded upon above.

  5. Ken Wolff

    The danger these politcal staffers create is that Ministers are insulated from the advice of public servants. It is now the staffers who decide what advice the minister will receive. I was personally involved in my public service career ‘negotiating’ the advice we could put to the minister – why does ‘advice’ need to be negotiated? And if the staffers think the advice could be ‘politically dangerous’ a minister may never see it. The ‘children overboard’ was a classic example. The political staffers made sure Howard never saw the advice that that story was false and also pressured the public servants to cover it up.

    The other change is in the public service itself. When I first joined the public service in the mid-70s, our ‘client’ was the people for whom we had portfolio responsibility – in my case Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were my department’s ‘clients’. I forget exactly when (perhaps early ’90s) but that changed and we began being told that our primary client was the Minister. Policy advice became less important than ensuring Ministerials were answered on time, parliamentary question briefs were readied each sitting day, and so on.

  6. Kaye Lee

    Interesting Ken – the change of “client” says it all.

  7. Möbius Ecko

    Also Ken Wolff the use of a firewall of advisers allows ministers to use the Sergeant Schultz defence. Again this was at the forefront during Children Overboard, but also in other scandals that occurred, like AWB. In everyone of these cases not a single adviser was punished for “not informing their boss on extremely important matters”.

    Indeed many of these failed advisers, especially in Howard’s case, were either promoted out of their department or moved on with generous payouts and bonuses.

    It’s about time “I can’t remember” or “I wasn’t informed” no longer be accepted as being legitimate excuses, with the responsible minister stood down for incompetency. On this alone, as raised in Blogracy, Howard would go down as the least informed and most incompetent PM by way of ignorance.

  8. kristapet

    Well now, we can see where they really need to be doing their budget cutting – instead of where they are cutting :
    Medicare, schools, hospitals, pensions, education etc etc – “Rorts”, folks, are really doing exceptionally well under the LNP – this is where the coffers are really going – then there is the pensions these folks will receive after when they retire

  9. Matters Not

    also mentioned Rudd and Gillard’s preference for young people with little experience.

    Yep, while Rudd wanted ‘young people’ I don’t think the ‘lack of experience’ was necessarily the most important factor. There were other considerations in play. Conceptually, Rudd knew ‘everything’! And therefore what he needed was a whole host of staffers who could provide the detail to flesh out his infallible conceptual ‘framework’. Rudd ‘never slept’ and therefore he wanted people, without other personal obligations, who could put in extraordinary hours. The ‘young people’ were the most likely candidates. Those who couldn’t keep up were discarded. (I won’t go into details.)

    As for:

    the Abbott government has broadly continued the trend.”

    Yes. As I have argued elsewhere, Credlin who was ‘the driver of the Abbott bus’ used Rudd and his organisation of the Queensland Cabinet Office as her ‘role model’.

  10. Matters Not

    Ken Wolff, re your comment:

    The danger these political staffers create is that Ministers are insulated from the advice of public servants.

    Politically, and while there are always dangers, that can be a very good thing. Public servants (collectively) construct their own reality – rationalise it and all that – but often have no regard for the political implications.

    For many public servants, they proceed on the assumption that Ministers come and go but we are here forever.

    Sometimes public servants need to be ‘aware’ of the wider world and what is emergent.

  11. Anomander

    @MN. I think you’ll find that most public servants no longer believe they have lifetime public service careers, particularly over the past decade or so, where pollies go on a cost-cutting pogrom, slashing tens of thousands of positions.

    That said, the whole aim of the public service is to build a pool of long-term corporate knowledge and experience, across multiple governments with the aim of providing frank and fearless advice to the government. Crucial to this advice is a depth of knowledge and experience inherent in the public sector. But that experience has been decimated over the years and largely ignored, in favour of the staffers, many of whom have zero experience in those portfolio areas and are merely sycophantic little plasticine puppets that can be moulded to whatever the politician desires. Indeed, many of them are so young they have very little life experience, apart from being entrenched in the political culture of entitlements, rorting and cronyism that the modern political sphere has become.

    To say public servants aren’t aware of the wider world is grossly incorrect. The public service is now a highly competitive environment and maintaining up-to-date skills and knowledge of contemporary issues is essential in not only maintaining your job but also in progressing up the ladder. Most of these are normal people who live in the real world; they have families, mortgages, goals and desires and they are well aware of the impact of government decisions on their day to day existence. This is often why people join the public service – to serve the public good.

    However, with the recent destruction of the public service, the neoliberalist push to privatise government services, the constant media demonisation of people who have devoted much of their lives to serving the community, and the politicisation of the whole process – their experienced voices are no longer being heard.

  12. Troy Prideaux

    Thanks Kaye. Interesting piece.

  13. Ken Wolff

    Matters Not

    In the ‘old days’, that was what ministers were for – they considered the political implications. It wasn’t as though the public service gave no consideration to political implications but they were less important. The way arguments were presented in advice, even the words used, could change depending whether it was being presented to an LNP or Labor minister, or sometimes even to different ministers of the same party. Basically one did try to find which political buttons to push to pursue new policy ideas.

    The problem now, as I see it, is that the influence of the political staffers, and changes in the public service, have politicised the advice the public service provides. The public service is used more than ever as another means to ‘protect’ the minister. Rather than providing ‘frank and fearless’ advice, almost nothing now reaches a minister unless it has been politically vetted and that is not healthy either

    Mobius Ecko

    I agree that claiming lack of knowledge is not a defence. Ignorance of the law is not a defence in courts, so why should politicians be allowed to get away with it. I see it as part of the modern management approach. The old idea of executive responsibility (‘the buck stops here’) seems to have gone out the window. CEOs and politicians now regularly blame people lower down the ladder for gaffs or stuff-ups, rather than saying I am in charge and therefore I accept responsibility – unfortunately that approach seems set to continue.

  14. Matters Not

    Anomander and Ken Wolff, on reflection, I agree with the basic thrust of your arguments. Things change rapidly and rarely for the better. With the current 24 hour news cycle, there’s increased pressure on everyone. Remember the stories of a Minister (long ago) who had so much time on his hands that he was a regular afternoon patron at the cinema. Them were the days.

  15. Steve Laing -

    Two points – first, what does this say about politicians that they require all these hangers-on, yet still are unable to do the simplest aspects of their jobs (e.g. reply to simple emails)? And secondly, talk about creating an echo-chamber! Is it any wonder that the Coalition policies are so low quality, when the only people that are likely to review them are a bunch of idiot twenty-something Young Liberals with no life experience? And they are the same ones that espouse small government whilst happily suckling very nicely on the public teat. Tim Wilson is another one I’d like to make a farmer…

  16. jimhaz

    Well the outcome of constant lying is that it takes up more mental effort than telling the truth, much harder to track and manage.

    I’m surprised they do not need millions of staff to keep track of the “I Said, He said, She said” business.

    Probably a lot more effort keeping track on the progress of the promises given to or given by the their lobbyist mates as well.

    Judging by the amounts paid to Parakeelia – then I imagine their democracy busting software needs at least 20 operators per office as well.

  17. Elly Rowan

    All politicians should be allowed to have as much staff as they want or need. There should be only ONE condition – and that is THEY should pay their wages personally, out of their own pockets, just as all other employers do !

  18. Zathras

    For all the talk of “smaller Government”, Howard was the PM who increased the Public Service at a higher rate than his predecessors and was of the first to engage a small army of personal media monitors.

    The trick of sacking Public Servants and then re-employing them as Consultants or outsourcing work to external Contractors is an old one in private enterprise and often used to artificially boost share value.

    The current philosophy of using media-oriented PR consultants and focus groups to determine policy popularity is particularly a strategy of the Liberal Party and is getting worse as the sale of partisan newspapers continues to decline.

    “These are my long-held principles. If you don’t like them, I have others” isn’t a joke anymore.

  19. Gangey1959

    Don’t get them wet and don’t feed them after midnight.

  20. Shogan

    I agree with you Elly Rowan, politicians should pay for their own super, travel, accommodation, electorate office, necessary insurance, staff wages & expenses etc. etc.

    Mind you, their base pay maybe around $1million/annum or even more, but I’m sure it would be a lot cheaper than what we currently pay for politicians wages, super & expenses, plus staff & all the hangers-on.

    Naturally there would have to be allowances for the prime minister, ministers, party leaders, shadow ministers & parliamentary positions, i.e. speakers, leader of the house & whips etc.

    Accordingly I would tie all Pensions, Newstart & any other welfare payments to a percentage of a base politician’s wage too which would be the end of things like Newstart going something like 20 years without any real increase.

    And the real bonus?

    Most people would be happy when the politicians get a pay rise.

  21. Miriam English

    Great piece Kaye. I was busy when you first posted it so I put it on the side to read later and just remembered today. I’m glad I remembered. Your article, and many of the comments explain so much of why government is now so atrocious. How can they possibly hope for any connection with the real world when wrapped so completely in cotton wool?

    The next question has to be, who among our future politicians will have the courage to fix the problem? It’s difficult to see it ever changing without some some very nasty calamity bringing it down. It is a system that feeds itself and grows without limit, causing ever greater incompetence. At some point it has to crash. That won’t be fun.

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